Fostering Creativity: Marketing Matters


Held in Austin, Texas on October 24–26, the 2007 Marketing Matters Conference gave cooperators a chance to focus on marketing topics and strategies for the advancement of our stores. Nearly 50 cooperatives sent participants to the event.

Austin proudly touts a lively nightlife and world-renowned music scene, launched each evening by the swarming of bats. It is the home of Wheatsville Co-op, at the southernmost tip of the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) Central Corridor.

“Austin was chosen for several reasons,” explained NCGA marketing director Kelly Smith. “It has a fairly wide mix of retailers, including a member co-op, non-co-op natural foods retailers, and lots of locally-owned retailers. It’s fairly centrally located with respect to our membership, and it has a great vibe. Who doesn’t want to visit a place whose motto is ‘Keep Austin Weird’?”

The conference began with retail audits. Teams took to the city in a hunt for examples of creative merchandising, excellent customer service, and other signs of distinctive branding. A representative from each team summarized audit findings the following day, prompting a lively discussion on competitive differences. In conversations over meals and on into the night, marketers shared stories about retail niches at the Whole Foods flagship, the spontaneous hospitality of the staff at a local coffee wholesaler, and the true weirdness of a prepared foods case situated beneath samples of shampoo, tuna, and organic dog biscuits.

Visits were made to businesses varying in size and product offerings: Wheatsville Co-op, Whole Foods, Sweetish Hill Bakery Café, Tea Embassy, Cork and Co. Wine Shop, Blackmail (a retail boutique next to a companion store, Vivid), the 1886 Café and Bakery, Royal Blue Grocery, Los Armadillos (a wholesale coffee roaster), Tears of Joy (purveyors of hot sauce), Farm to Market (a small food store with the tagline ‘Shop Local’), and the sprawling Central Market (where music is played on an outdoor stage on Friday and Saturday nights).

And then there was the magnetic draw of a Silver Stream trailer named “Hey Cupcake!” selling… guess what? At night, one group ambled into a local bar in time to catch an unadvertised set by blues legend Pinetop Perkins, age 95 and still agile on the keyboard.

Two panels, one each day, featured the work of conference attendees. Seth Larson (Davis Food Co-op), Joey Robison (Just Foods Co-op), and Lisa Malmarowski (Outpost Natural Foods Co-op) shared ideas for marketing local and regional products. They addressed the complexities of emphasizing local foods, with examples of story-telling signage, attractive displays, product demo ideas, local tote boards, newsletter articles, and an Eat Local Challenge.

On an “Events Hits and Misses” panel, Annie Hoy of Ashland Food Co-op told a gut-wrenching, often hilarious story of an annual meeting that went less than smoothly due to an inexplicable crisis of confidence: “Don’t be tempted to hire a party planner,” was her advice. Shannon Szymkowiak of Whole Foods Co-op emphasized the need to rethink events in order to update and invigorate them.

Heather Rische of Market View Market shared images, audio clips, and do-it-yourself silk-screened t-shirts from several very successful Las Cruces, New Mexico “Co-op Rocks!” events, encouraging our stores to pay more attention to the DIY music culture of younger shoppers.

Karissa Centanni of Honest Weight Food Co-op told of how her co-op rose to environmentalist Bill McKibben’s challenge to “Step It Up!” in response to global warming, embracing the co-op’s potential as a locus of environmental activism.

Charli Mills of Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, Minnesota gave a presentation on building a brand action plan relevant to your store. Showing a clip of a Target TV commercial, Mills noted that Target is a major competitor in her suburban market. She gave examples of brand collaboration, emphasizing successful ways to make use of the NCGA Co-op Advantage resources.

Several sessions were led by marketing experts, including Katherine Jones of Milkshake Media in Austin, creator of the anti-cancer “LiveStrong” campaign affiliated with Lance Armstrong. Jones spoke to the power of co-ops to become centers for experiences that help create enduring relationships. Attendees explored common symbols, shared values, and meaningful conversations relevant to building community at and through our stores.

Consultant Brian Oberkirch discussed the recent shift to social media and their effect on traditional marketing practice. Moving beyond broadcast mechanisms created from the top down, social media invariably “happens” whether you control them or not. Social media represents grassroots information-sharing among people from a broad range of ages, perspectives, and backgrounds. They connect and create information (and opinion) in a collaborative manner, using technologies that are rapidly changing: internet forums, message boards, podcasts, blogs, vlogs, instant messaging, social networking, and photo sharing.

John Moore of Brand Autopsy led a session on word of mouth marketing, giving examples of powerful media moments. Like Oberkirch on social media, Moore emphasized that consumers enjoy talking about-even owning-their retail experiences. The secret to successful word of mouth advertising is a positive brand experience on the retail floor: you must be confident about the value of your business for word of mouth to be effective.

The most popular speaker, according to conference feedback, was Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Mich. Weinzweig gave a version of the Zingtrain Top 10 Merchandising Tips, focusing on the creation of a compelling in-store experience, effective sign-making, light and lively product information, and the sincere delivery of customer engagement. He encouraged attendees to look at our stores through the customer’s eyes, training staff at all levels to bring high energy, enthusiasm, creativity, and personality to our brands. Much of what he said seemed directly applicable to our stores, prompting many ‘aha!’ moments and the palpable desire to adapt the Zing philosophy locally.

In addition to these speakers, attendees learned more about upcoming NCGA initiatives, such as customization of the monthly promotional CAP flyer. Newsletters, bumper stickers, owner brochures, and other swag were enthusiastically exchanged, and Kelly Smith and Tim Barnes gave away samples of new Co-op Advantage gear, including “Go Co-op!” lanyards and wristbands.

Feedback about the conference included such phrases as “awesomely beneficial.” In the sessions as well as during informal interactions, Marketing Matters 2007 enabled 59 individuals representing 48 member co-ops to connect around many of the common themes and challenges of our jobs: building brands that burst with personality, aiming for consistently high production values, and enhancing relationships with customers on the retail stage of our stores. Thank you, NCGA!

For more information, including downloads of the conference presentations, NCGA members can visit , and click on the Marketing tab following login.


Ellen Michel is director of marketing and communications at Bloomingfoods Cooperative in Bloomington, Indiana ([email protected]).

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